Schools

Orange County Public Schools’ technology director Mark Outten is working to make sure every student has a computer to take home for virtual instruction during the 2020-21 school year.

The Orange County School Board had a long meeting this past Monday, and the stakes could not have been higher.

Faced with educating the county’s children during a pandemic that has completely destroyed conventional notions of school, Orange County School Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead and his colleagues outlined their instructional, health and technology plans for the coming year. Snead acknowledged that state and federal guidelines have been changing practically on the hour.

He said that the school division has been relying on the expertise of numerous sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Education, the Virginia Department of Health, the division’s legal counsel and insurance risk management and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The matter of “workforce availability” also is in play—that is, whether school employees will actually show up for the jobs they once did with no thought of possibly catching a deadly disease from their colleagues or students. He said the constraints of physical distancing and personal protective equipment are driving all the decisions behind plans for the coming year, scheduled to begin on Aug. 24.

Snead emphasized that bus transportation is a huge issue, since the students on board must be spread out and wearing masks, and buses must be sanitized between runs. The school division previously announced families could choose between a 100 percent online approach, “Virtual OC,” or a hybrid model combining online learning with limited time actually in school.

At Monday’s meeting, Snead said of the student population of nearly 5,000, nearly 22 percent said they will not be attending in person. Whether those students will opt for Virtual OC remains unclear, but Snead said the goal is to “capture those students” and keep them in the division.

Staff presentations to the board made it obvious administrators and teachers have been working furiously to make sure, as Director of Secondary Education Renee Honaker put it, that “this really is school,” not just a gesture toward keeping students occupied with ungraded assignments, as was largely the case in the spring.

Honaker and Director of Elementary Education Judy Anderson presented the instructional plan. For the hybrid program, students from pre-kindergarten through middle school will follow an “A/B” schedule, with the “A” students attending on Monday and Wednesday, and the “B” students on Tuesday and Thursday.

On the days when they’re not attending in person, all will be engaged in online studies. Anderson presented a graphic showing an example of an elementary school schedule. While in school, students would begin with a morning meeting, move on to reading and word study, have a period devoted to the arts and then have lunch.

As it is currently envisioned, lunch will require students to wear masks on their way to the cafeteria, pick up their meals and bring them back to the classroom for consumption. After lunch, children would move from writing instruction to math.

Then comes recess, a physically distanced activity. The day would end with science or social studies. Anderson noted that teachers would be in regular contact with their students whether they attend in person or not. The sample middle school schedule showed that students attending in person for two days per week would remain in their classrooms while their teachers rotated from room to room.

High school students opting for the hybrid model will attend in person only day per week. Honaker said students will be allowed to change classes while following physical distancing guidelines, which will be marked in the hallways.

As for those students who opt for Virtual OC, they won’t be expected to spend the whole school day working at the computers supplied to them free of charge by the school division. When not online, they will read books an exercise, among other activities designed to keep them doing what they would typically do back in the days of normal school.

All virtual instruction will employ the Canvas online learning platform, which Honaker and Anderson expect to work better than Google Classroom, the platform used in the spring.

Technology director Mark Outten told the board he has readied more than 5,000 devices, including iPads for kindergarteners and first-graders and Chromebooks for all the children in higher grades. He said plans will soon be announced for the distribution of the devices, which all have been assigned to individual students.

A detailed survey of families’ internet connectivity has revealed that about 74% have reliable access, 18% have inconsistent access but will be able to sync their children’s devices without too much trouble and 7.4% have inconsistent or no access. The school division is working to ensure that all families will be able to sync their devices at WiFi hotspots in the school parking lots and elsewhere in the county.

Of note, Snead said that Germanna Community College President Dr. Janet Gullickson will make the Wi-Fi signal in the college’s Locust Grove parking lot available to Orange County elementary and secondary students.

Director of Special Education Susan Aylor has had the crucial job of spearheading the division’s health plan. She told the board that the document is more than 50 pages long and requires vetting by the state health department and approval by the state department of education. Once approved, it will be posted online and families will receive a health guide boiling down the enormously detailed plan to its essentials.

The draft plan involves a very specific protocol for bus transportation. Among the highlights: Only one student will be allowed per bench seat, unless they are siblings, in which case they can sit next to each other. Unless they have health related exemptions, bus-riders all will be wearing masks. Students also will be required to wear masks when they’re walking around inside the school building and in other situations where they can’t maintain physical distancing of six feet or more.

Teachers will be required to take their students’ temperatures when they arrive at school; they will be provided with no-touch infrared thermometers. Classrooms will be reconfigured so students can spread out; hand sanitizers will be readily available; plastic screens will be set up in high-traffic areas to protect staff and students from the possibility of airborne germs.

Yvonne Dawson, director of human resources, told the board that staff members will be required to pre-screen themselves for possible COVID-19 infection before reporting to work. She said that if teachers have symptoms, they will quarantine themselves even before they get virus test results.

But, “just because they’re quarantined, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t work”—provided they have reliable internet access at home.

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